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Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time

May 19, 2011

Adrienne Rich has a new collection out, entitled Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, and none of it really grabs me the way her previous (more famous) poems do, but there’s one I keep thinking about, “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time”:

Lurid, garish, gash
rended creature struggles to rise, to
run with dripping belly
Blood making everything more real
pounds in the spearthruster’s arm as in
the gunman’s neck the offhand
moment–Now!–before he
takes the bastards out
*
Splendor in black and ochre on a grecian urn
Beauty as truth
The sea as background
stricken with black long-oared ships
on shore chariots shields greaved muscled legs
horses rearing  Beauty!  flesh before gangrene
*
Mind-shifting gods rush back and forth  Delusion
a daughter seized by the hair  swung out to bewilder men
Everything here is conflictual and is called man’s fate
*
Ugly glory: open-eyed wounds
feed enormous flies
Hoofs slicken on bloodglaze

Horses turn away their heads
weeping equine tears
Beauty?
a wall with names of the fallen
from both sides  passionate objectivity

I keep thinking about the way the poem captures the kind of images I always bring to re-reading from my previous reading, and how it reminds me of the Brad Pitt movie Troy, which wasn’t a bad movie in terms of capturing that feeling that neither side “won,” that there were people to root for on both sides, and in terms of the wonderful image of the Greek fleet arriving–so many white sails against a wide, blue sea.

The poem also reminds me of Cynthia Bass’s novel Sherman’s March, which is narrated by Sherman and ends with his declaration that “no side will comprehend I was a peacemaker; that after four bloody years of this most terrible of wars, I hastened what both sides most ardently desired–not Victory, but Peace. Those who revere me and those who abhor me revere and abhor for the same illusion. I have become not a general in a particular war, but eternal–the eternal destroyer in an ageless, eternal war.”

I have to say, though, that Rich in her old age is reminding me of Percy Shelley a bit. The horses weep? Are they falling against “the thorns of life”?!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 10:20 am

    The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” references here seem fairly explicit, though, no? I wouldn’t say Rich so much reminds me of Shelley as references him. But I agree that it seems quite different from her earlier work. If you’d handed me this poem and asked me to guess who wrote it, Rich wouldn’t be on my list of possibilities.

    It’s funny you posted this today, because I’ve been plotting a summer poetry project to do with AJ. They were working on poetry in school and he seemed pretty engaged, so I’m building some writing activities around Sharon Creech’s “Love that Dog” and “Hate that Cat” and the poems they reference. One of the things we were talking about is how poetry can be a good way to write about things about which your feelings are conflicted. And this poem suits that.

    But beyond that, I think I wrote a week or two about the phrase “All the glory” from a Sufjan Stevens song and how the word “glory” is applied to things that are both magnificent and tragic. I like Rich’s phrase “Ugly Glory,” especially as applied to battle.

    • May 19, 2011 11:23 am

      Maybe she’s more clever than I’m giving her credit for, and referencing the whole Romantic movement, but I don’t really think that referring to the spirit of Keats’ poem makes her weeping horses any better.

      “Glory” is a good word for both magnificent and tragic. That’s the way I often feel when listening to requiems (I was thinking about Amadeus the movie earlier, so Mozart’s, for example).

      • May 19, 2011 12:52 pm

        Yeah, I agree that the horses are not my favorite part. But I tend to like poems that inspire counterpoint. Actually, this reminds me of a question I got from a friend. Is “generative paradox” a literary term? He’s come across it in some music reading and is wondering where it comes from, as it’s used like it’s this category everybody knows about.

  2. May 19, 2011 7:17 pm

    Eh. I love the Iliad and normally love poems that reference it, but this doesn’t do anything for me. The images aren’t my own Iliad images, if that makes sense — it’s like we didn’t read quite the same poem, she and I.

    • May 19, 2011 7:30 pm

      Jenny, I wondered if you would like it; I think I posted it partly to see how you would react.
      It’s a short poem about a much longer work, so it doesn’t really surprise me that these images–which seem very cinematic, as if she might have been reacting partly to the movie–are not the ones that have stayed with you.
      One of the things I like about poetry is that no one ever does read quite the same poem as any other person.

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